Leo Johnson had the chance to kill Floyd Lee Corkins that August Wednesday in 2012. He chose not to.
“God spoke to me and told me not to take his life,” recalled Johnson, the building manager for the Family Research Council. “That’s not the act of someone who’s a hater, or involved with a hate group. I could have easily done to him what he tried to do to me and all of my colleagues.”
Corkins had walked into the FRC’s Washington D.C. offices with a handgun and a bag of Chick-fil-A, determined to kill everyone inside the socially conservative non-profit before smearing chicken sandwiches in their faces. As it happened, he never got past the lobby, and Leo Johnson, who took a bullet in the arm, was his only victim. Johnson, though unarmed and wounded, wrestled Corkins to the ground and disarmed him. The building manager’s heroics averted a possible massacre.
On Feb. 6, 2013, Corkins pled guilty to three felony charges, including “committing an act of terrorism with the intent to kill.” He had confessed to FBI interrogators that he’d decided to target FRC after seeing the organization listed on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Hate Map.” SPLC’s map showed the locations of “hate groups.” In among the neo-Nazis and white supremacists were the offices of social conservative groups like Concerned Women for America, the National Organization for Marriage and the FRC, labeled “anti-gay.” SPLC characterizes FRC as“among the chief purveyors of lies about LGBT people.”
(The chicken sandwiches were a reference to Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy’s comments in support of traditional marriage.)
Predictably, the SPLC – which claims it is “dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry” – refused to take any responsibility for the part its map and its rhetoric played in the shooting, even though its been among the first to blame similar incidents on right-wing “vitriol.” It claimed such accusations from “the FRC and its allies on the religious right” were “outrageous.”
Even more predictable was the media reaction. The shooting received almost no coverage, and the media continued to promote the SPLC, calling it “one of the most knowledgeable sources in the country.” ABC and NBC have interviewed SPLC spokespeople as reliable sources seven times since the shooting. Print journalism was even worse, with The New York Times and the Washington Post citing SPLC experts 40 times, while only mentioning the connection between SPLC and the shooter once.
Clearly, the media isn’t interested in holding the SPLC accountable for its rhetoric.
To SPLC, Disagreement = Hate
How did groups that defend traditional marriage end up on a list with the likes of the Ku Klux Klan and the Arian Brotherhood? Essentially, by disagreeing with the SPLC.
Ironically, the SPLC justified putting the FRC on its hate group list by arguing that “words have consequences.” To the SPLC, “it seems obvious that their [FRC and the American Family Association’s] regular demonizing of members of the LGBT community as child molesters and the like creates an atmosphere where violence is all but inevitable. And that violence is dramatic.” But while FRC’s words haven’t been linked to any violent crimes, the SPLC’s have.
In fact, the SPLC seems to have run up against a shortage of actual “hate crimes” in recent years. Its 2013 report on “The Year in Hate and Extremism,” which came out just a few months after the August 15 shooting, barely mentioned any actual extremist groups. “Some broad social progress that did occur last year – the rapidly increasing acceptance of LGBT people and same sex marriage – fueled just such a backlash among anti-gay religious groups that saw themselves beginning to lose the issue,” the report claimed.
According to report author and Senior Fellow Mark Potok, the anti-gay hate camp included the Liberty Counsel, Fox News Radio host Todd Starnes, TeaParty.org, the American Family Association, Sen. Rand Paul and, of course, the Family Research Council. (“The anti-gay Family Research Council charged Obama with ‘dismantling’ the country.”) The SPLC claimed that its labeling of these groups was justified, since they “demonize” homosexuals with their pro-traditional marriage message.
Again, this report came out after Corkins, the first person guilty of domestic terrorism under DC’s Anti-Terrorism Act of 2002, confessed he was inspired by the SPLC’s hate map.
Some other terrifying examples of right-wing hate from the report:
- “Matt Barber of the anti-gay Liberty Counsel said he feared that the nation, which he described as already on the brink of civil unrest, was headed for a ‘second civil war.’
- “‘Freedom ends. Tyranny begins.’ Tweeted Fox News Radio host Todd Starnes.
- “‘Get ready’ TeaParty.org said. ‘Right now the government gun grabbing plans are being covertly organized.’”
- “Hundreds of thousands of Americans signed petitions seeking the secession of each of the 50 states. Right-wing outfits like TeaParty.org said a ‘Communist coup’ was under way.”
Scary stuff, at least according to the SPLC.
SPLC co-founder Morris Dees defended having FRC on the SPLC’s hate map in a recent interview with CNSNews.com, claiming that FRC said “demonstrably false things,” which “cause people to attack gay people.” He also falsely claimed that FRC made statements linking gays to the cause of the Holocaust.
FRC Executive Vice President Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin (ret.) told CNSNews.com in the same article that the SPLC’s claims were “false and inaccurate,” adding that “[t]he SPLC should fact check their own statements before making reckless accusations.”
Strangely, though, Dees claimed to have no knowledge about how his own group drew the connection between violence and “rhetoric” in another shooting.
After the 2011 shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others in Tucson, the SPLC was quick to point the finger at conservatives, including former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Only, there was no connection to be made in that case.
Palin’s political action committee’s website featured a U.S. map with target symbols over the districts of vulnerable house Democrats in the 2010 mid-term elections. The man who shot Giffords, Jared Lee Loughner, was severely mentally ill. He also was a registered Independent, and had no affiliation with the Tea Party, conservatives or Palin. Furthermore, there was no indication that Loughner had even seen Palin’s map. Even so, the map was soon removed from the site. (The SPLC map is still on line, and still includes the FRC.)
On Jan. 10, 2011, soon after the attack on Giffords SPLC President Richard Cohen wrote, “The shameless Glenn Beck feeds the lunatic fringe with talk of the government herding Americans into FEMA concentration camps and of imminent violence from mysterious forces ‘from the left.’ Sarah Palin uses phrases like ‘don't retreat, reload’ and shows the districts of various Democrats in Congress, including that of Tucson's Gabrielle Giffords, in the crosshairs.” Cohen concluded that, “with all the vitriol on the airwaves, it’s not surprising that someone has taken deadly aim at an elected official.”
No Hate on the Left
“Despite the evidence, many in the media refuse to admit what the SPLC says itself: It is a liberal organization designed to track only what it considers to be right-wing extremism,” FRC President Tony Perkins told the Culture and Media Institute.
“When National Review questioned the SPLC about extremism, the organization responded by saying, ‘We’re not really set up to cover the extreme Left.’ One has to wonder about their methodology if they blatantly ignore extremism based simply on the actor’s politics,” Perkins observed.
Potok himself admitted to the Utne Reader that there was an “element of hypocrisy” in branding conservative groups as hate groups while ignoring liberal groups.
There was also, I feared, sometimes a little bit of an element of hypocrisy in the sense that for instance we wrote extensively about anti-abortion extremists who targeted individual doctors and their helpers by doing things like printing their names and home addresses and pictures of their children, and what car they drove to work, and that sort of thing. But at the same time we said nothing about groups like the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front, which are not right-wing groups in any sense, but employed exactly the same kind of tactics – that kind of targeting of individuals, holding them up for real, physical assault.
Well, hate is in the eye of the beholder. And that helps explain why, even though the FBI partners with the SPLC, and uses it as a resource to identify hate crimes, the SPLC’s statistics don’t match the Bureau’s.
The SPLC claims that hate crimes have increased by 67.3 percent since 1996. The FBI said that there has actually been a 29 percent decrease in hate crimes since 1996. The SPLC maintains that, “[b]etween 2000 and 2010, the number of hate groups rose from 602 to more than 1,000,” or 69 percent.
But if the number of SPLC-designated hate groups has increasing while FBI-reported incidents of hate crimes is declining, there must be a serious disconnect between SPLC’s hate group labeling and actual hateful activity.
And sure enough, there is. SPLC itself noted that the growing number of “hate groups” is due to “the latest growth spurt in the Patriot movement, which generally believes that the federal government is conspiring to take Americans’ guns and destroy their liberties as it paves the way for a global “one-world government,” wrote Potok. He made no distinction between “patriot groups” who speak out against President Obama’s agenda and policies like “comprehensive immigration reform,” and groups that try to incite violence.
The SPLC’s definition of “hate group” is vague at best. “Hate group activities can include criminal acts, marches, rallies, speeches, meetings, leafleting or publishing,” although “[l]isting here does not imply a group advocates or engages in violence or other criminal activity.” That description could be used to justify targeting nearly any group that voices any opinion at all. Potok is also in charge of the center’s Hatewatch blog, which promotes this labeling.
Essentially, forming an organization with conservative objectives is enough to earn the “hate group” label.
The SPLC funny numbers, slap-dash labeling and even its connection to the FRC shooting aren’t enough to persuade liberal journalists to look elsewhere when they’re ginning up fear over right-wing bogie men.
Since the shooting, the morning and evening shows of ABC and NBC have interviewed SPLC spokespeople seven times for insight on incidents of violence, consistently touting the group as a reliable source. CBS News’s “This Morning” also cited a study by the SPLC during that time period, but this number was not included in the tally. The network broadcasts failed to cover the shooting when it occurred, except for one mention during ABC’s “World News with Diane Sawyer.”
New York Times articles cited SPLC spokespeople 21 times since the shooting, with no connection made between SPLC and the shooter at all, and The Washington Post cited the group 19 times with only a single reference to a connection, which was then quickly dismissed.
Leo Johnson was understandably bothered by the lack of media coverage. “The fact that something this serious and this major happened in the heart of DC – a terrorist crime, a hate crime – and you give it minimal coverage … it’s a travesty."
The Culture and Media Institute contacted ABC and NBC, asking why the networks went to the SPLC for input on crime, and whether or not they viewed the SPLC as a reliable source. A producer with NBC Nightly News, Michael Kosner, acknowledged the question, but failed to give an answer, although he did call Mark Potok “one of the most knowledgeable sources in the country” on prison gangs and white supremacists.
Meanwhile, the organization sits on more than $256.5 million, ensuring that it can continue to brand conservatives as haters for years to come.
Saving for a Hateless Day
The SPLC, which boasts such donors as George Soros, the Tides Foundation and Hugh Hefner, is sitting on a surprising stockpile of cash for a nonprofit. For the 2011 fiscal year, the SPLC raked in more than $40.4 million and spent $38.2, but its net assets sit at $256.5 million. That’s enough to keep its operation running for about six-and-a-half years at present expenditures, even without any incoming cash flow or interest. CharityWatch, an organization that monitors and rates nonprofits, gave the SPLC its lowest rating, an “F,” for stockpiling its assets. This led The Weekly Standard to refer to the SPLC as “probably the richest poverty organization in the history of the world.”
According to The Weekly Standard, much of that impressive stockpile of resources continues to come, not from foundations, but from “aging Northern-state ‘1960s liberals.’” “We’ve tried to raise a substantial endowment, because our fundraising is on a downward trend,” Cohen told The Weekly Standard. “Those 1960s liberals – they’re getting older, and the post office is dying. We’re likely to be out of the fundraising business within 10 years.”
But for now, raising the alarm about right-wing violence – real or, more likely, imagined – remains lucrative. Laird Wilcox. founder of the Wilcox Collection on Contemporary Political Movements at the University of Kansas, told the Weekly standard, “[i]n private he [Potok] concedes that there’s no overwhelming threat from the far right and in public says something altogether different. He may be an OK guy on a personal basis, but professionally he is just a shill. It’s his job. That’s what he’s paid for.”
Back at Hate HQ …
So how did a “hate group” like FRC respond the shooting one year ago? The FRC staff gathered together and prayed. And not just for their own wounded man either. “We all gathered and Tony and the General [Boykin] spoke and said ‘let’s just take some time to pray for Leo’” FRC VP of Communications JP Duffy recalled. “And then just before they started to pray, one of the staffers jumped in and said ‘you know, let’s also pray for the shooter,’ and so that’s exactly what Tony and the General did. They prayed both for Leo and the gunman.”
Photos of Leo Johnson and Tony Perkins courtesy of Carrie Russell and FRC.